Royal Maya Tomb Found - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Royal Maya Tomb Found November 28, 2000
by Angela M.H. Schuster


Jade pectorals and earspools are among the offerings buried in a new-found sixth-century tomb at Copán in western Honduras. [LARGER IMAGE] (Courtesy Seiichi Nakamura © IHAH/PICPAC)

A Maya royal tomb filled with splendid jade offerings and painted ceramics is the latest in a series of recent discoveries in the Copán Valley of western Honduras. The tomb, located in a settlement area halfway between the Copán Acropolis and the modern town of Copán Ruinas, was brought to light during rescue excavations prompted by extensive redevelopment in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, which struck Central America in late October 1998.


Click on pyramid for Copán site map and location of new-found tomb. (Angela M.H. Schuster)

"We were surprised by the tomb discovery," says Seiichi Nakamura, director of the Integrated Program for Conservation of the Copán Archaeological Park, who began conducting test excavations in an area prior to the construction of a new road that would link the town of El Florido on the Guatemala border to Copán Ruinas. "Before we began our work it was thought there was very little in terms of Prehispanic remains in the area."

Nakamura and his team began working in the settlement area known as quadrangle10-J on the Copán site map, this past May. By August, they had found some 20 structures, only one of which had been visible above ground, and 11 offering caches and 35 burials within a group of structures dominated by a building known as 10J-45. Included in the caches were ceramic vessels, spondylus shells, and jade figurines. The most elaborate of the offerings was a stone vessel covered in red paint found within a stone cache box. Known as offering 7, the cache contained a set of seashells and jade pendants oriented to the four cardinal directions used by the ancient Maya. It was not until September, however, that Nakamura found the burial with which the offerings were associated, deep within Structure 10J-45.

The pattern of the new-found burial echoes that of the Early Classic (A.D. 400-600) royal tombs excavated on the Copán Acropolis. The roof is vaulted and the interior chamber was made of worked tuff covered in stucco and painted red. The deceased (or his or her bones) had been placed on a flagstone funerary platform, supported by six stone pedestals, with his or her head to the east. Numerous ceramics had been placed beneath the burial platform, which had been covered in red pigment, possibly hematite. The ceramics, says Nakamura, place the construction of the tomb in the sixth century A.D.

Among the most magnificent of the offerings were two large jade pectorals. One, 9.5 inches long. is carved with the image of a god in the Early Classic style. The other, eight inches long, is carved with the "mat" design, suggesting that the tomb's occupant may have served as ah pop, "a man of the mat," a title reserved for Copán's rulers. Both pectorals had been perforated transversally so they could be worn on the chest.


The stylized figure of a god adorns a jade pectoral. [LARGER IMAGE] (Courtesy Seiichi Nakamura © IHAH/PICPAC)


A jade pectoral bearing the so-called "mat design" suggests the tomb's occupant may have been an ah pop or "man of the mat," a title reserved for Copán's rulers. [LARGER IMAGE] (Courtesy Seiichi Nakamura © IHAH/PICPAC)

Although the analysis of the human remains, offerings, and soil samples recovered from the tomb is not yet complete, it is clear from the archaeological context of the tomb that once it was buried, it was not disturbed, since it was under the stucco floor of a subsequent building phase. According to Nakamura, the building appears to have been used as a shrine for several generations; the stucco floor was scorched in a number of places, marks left by incense burners. He also notes that Copán's stelae 5 and 6, dedicated in the mid-seventh century by the city's twelfth king, Smoke Jaguar, were erected just 500 and 1,000 feet north of Structure 10J-45. Moreover, the figure on stelae 6 appears to be looking toward the 10J-45 group. "This," he says, "may be more than pure coincidence."

"The pectorals, along with the pattern of the burial and its associated offerings," says Nakamura, "suggest that the individual buried there may have been one of the kings from the Copán dynasty. If a king or queen's tomb was placed outside of the Acropolis," he adds, "will require us to rethink our traditional interpretations of the sociopolitical organization of Copán. This discovery could possess huge significance for all studies of Maya occupation at the site."

Initially, Constructora Nacional de Ingenieros, the company hired to build the new road, paid for the rescue project, hoping to have the area free for construction within a short period of time. Given the nature of the finds, however, funding for the site's excavation has been assumed by the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historía (IHAH); the Honduran government has halted construction of the road, diverting it away from the new-found archaeological zone. Nakamura and his team will return to the site in January to investigate the other burials and offering caches.

Angela M.H. Schuster is a senior editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America